Little-known facts about Mumbai’s newly restored Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue
A slice of history
On a bright February morning, I walk down a winding lane in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda district and locate the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue (pronounced ney-sette ili-ya-hoo si-ne-gog), also known colloquially as ‘the blue synagogue’. Its familiar sky blue colour has been replaced by shades of white and a darker blue. I walk inside, past a few plaques mounted on walls, to the synagogue’s main prayer hall, and take in the stunning fluted Corinthian columns, large stained glass windows and chandeliers on high ceilings. In awe, I stand in the Jewish place of worship has just been restored for the first time since it was built in 1884.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue:
The synagogue was established by Jacob Elias Sassoon, grandson of David Sassoon (businessman and philanthropist who fled Baghdad due to religious persecution and settled in the city). Traditionally, Jews walk to synagogues as a mark of respect. According to Solomon Sopher, Chairman and Managing Trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon and Allied Trust, Kala Ghoda was chosen as the location so that the Baghdadi and Bene Israeli Jewish community, who had settled in the southern parts of Bombay till Byculla, could have a place to worship in.
Synagogues around the world do not conform to stylistic rules and the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue was built in the Classical Revival style with decorative Victorian interiors. It was designed by Bombay architects Gostling and Morris. The original colour of the structure was obscured under layers of blue washing, which were peeled back. The white and blue colours it flaunts right now are the closest to the original.
Ever since its establishment, only routine general repairs have taken place. Apart from the interiors, the restoration team worked on structural stability as well, which included roof repairs and waterproofing the terrace. Craftsmen worked on the carvings on the outside, which are made in soft Porbandar stone, and also restored damaged cornices in lime plaster. Every timber boarding that could be salvaged was re-used.
The synagogue has been restored by collaborative efforts of JSW Group, Sir Jacob Sassoon & Allied Trust, Kala Ghoda Association and World Monument Fund. Abha Narain Lambah served as the Principal Conservation Architect, while Swati Chandgadkar restored the stained glass panels. “The roof was the toughest part of the restoration process and took three months. There was a lot of seepage through the walls, so we had to remove the plasters,” she says. The cracks in the monument have also been addressed, so it doesn’t further deteriorate.
Coming to the interiors, the sanctuary features Minton tiles, which were originally imported from Stoke-on-Trent in England, and have been retained and polished.
Various religious symbols such as grape vines, citron fruit and the Star of David, can be seen as motifs in various parts of the synagogue.
The prayer hall is arranged along an east to west orientation, with the entry doors placed east orientation and the Bechal, or Ark, containing the Torah scrolls, facing west towards Jerusalem. The service is conducted from a centralised or freestanding podium—a Sephardic or eastern Jewish tradition. Women can be seated on the benches behind a screen, and there’s a women’s gallery on the first floor. “Earlier they would use make-shift screens to cordon the area. We have erected the screen in a more contemporary way. We took the design from the motif inside the prayer hall,” says Abha. The lights are also original. “We just added track lights in a discreet manner,” she adds.
The colour palette you see today, featuring gold, Victorian pale greens and sage green was the oldest colour palette in the 19th Century, according to Abha.
Contrary to popular misconception, people of all faiths are welcome at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue. “All you need is a valid ID, such as an Aadhar card or driving license,” says Solomon. 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, which targeted the Chabad House (a Jewish community centre), has left the community feeling vulnerable. This is the reason you’ll always find a couple of armed policemen stationed outside. “We even have Muslims from Hyderabad who come here to pray,” Solomon adds.
The restoration process took about 20 months. The architectural conservation of the synagogue began in 2017 by the JSW foundation. “People ask me if I am a Jew. I am a Hindu but I’ve had a secular upbringing and I wanted to do something for my city. To me, it is a way of saying we are all one,” states Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the foundation.